Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

by Richard Nelson and Cole Cuzick

Kentucky’s state legislative races took center stage in Tuesday’s primary, even though the presidential race was on the ballot. That’s because the presidential candidates were decided earlier this year. Turnout across the state was 13 percent. It was stronger where competitive primaries were on the ballot. At the end of the night, three Republican incumbents lost their seats in different regions and for different reasons. The bigger storyline is that five conservative House Republicans were targeted by a moderate GOP political action committee fueled by big money and powerful interest groups. All prevailed in their elections. An additional conservative picked up an open seat in Northern Kentucky. Here are a few takeaways:

Principled Conservatism Matters: Good candidates have convictions on issues the voters care about. House District 60 incumbent State Rep. Marianne Procter, a principled conservative who fought to bring more choices in healthcare to her Northern Kentucky district, handily defeated Chris Pavese, who switched parties last year and could not articulate a conservative position. When Pavese was asked at an event where he stood on abortion and puberty blocks for minors, he failed to convincingly explain his position. Pavese ducked out of CPC’s Northern Kentucky candidate forum at the last minute, which hurt his candidacy. The incumbent Procter won handily by a 76-24% margin despite being out spent $112,000 to $87,000. A total of 6 strong conservative House members defeated moderate challengers. Two strong conservative Senate candidates won open seats.
Takeaway: Socially and fiscally conservative candidates won on primary election day.

Money Cannot Buy an Election: Conservative incumbents were significantly out-raised by their moderate opponents. However, the story of the evening was that money did not win the day. In fact, far from it. Consider that House District 66 former State Rep. Ed Massey spent $256,000 to TJ Robert’s $75,000. The more conservative Roberts, endorsed by Kentucky Right to Life and pro-school choice groups, won by a margin of 76%-24% margin. State Rep. Killian Timoney’s total campaign support was $310,000 while his conservative challenger Thomas Jefferson had $45,000. The left-leaning Timoney lost by a 72% to 28% margin. (Final spending reports, which are expected to be higher, were not available at the time of this article).
Takeaway: Money is no substitute for principled conservative candidates.

The Right Endorsements Matter: The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce endorsed challengers to conservative incumbents. They were only successful in 11 of the 21 races (52%). When moderating candidate forums, CPC executive director Richard Nelson asked sitting incumbents why the Chamber endorsed their opponent. A couple candidates shrugged off the Chamber’s endorsements because “they’re not conservative.” On the other hand, Kentucky Right to Life was successful 19 of 23 of their legislative endorsements (82%).
Takeaway: The right endorsements matter in GOP primaries.

Truthful Messaging is Irreplaceable: Truth is a precious commodity in the election space where it’s easy to curate a candidate’s image. It’s easy to bend and distort the truth of an opponent. Candidates like Ed Massey and Killian Timoney made allegations that were false. The distortions and downright lies came back to haunt those who peddled them. Candidates that have a record of integrity, and communicate truthfully were rewarded this election. At CPC’s candidate forum in Boone County, Ed Massey stated there was a rumor that TJ Roberts was on a gay dating app, a statement that Mr. Massey provided no evidence for and was quickly denied by his opponent. Furthermore, Rep. Killian Timoney’s campaign ran ads stating his opponent, Thomas Jefferson, makes his money from “black lives matters protestors” and “drag shows for children.” What was this claim based off of? Mr. Jefferson owns stocks in companies like Disney. All the while, Rep. Killian Timoney was one of the most liberal members of the Kentucky Republican House Caucus who voted against SB 150, which kept gender ideology out of public schools and protected gender dysphoric minors. He also voted against the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, which kept biological males off of girls’ sports teams. Much of the campaign messaging centered on those two votes. Timoney lost by a 72% to 28% margin.
Takeaway: Slanderous campaign messaging failed.

Another incumbent who voted against SB150 was HD 64 State Rep. Kim Moser, who nearly lost to political newcomer Karen Campbell. Rep. Moser vocally opposed SB 150, which protected gender dysphoric minors and kept gender ideology indoctrination out of public schools. She was supported by a pro-transgender group, “Kentuckians for All of Us,” who spent $35,000 portraying her as a conservative “protecting family values.” This group understood that while they supported her vote on SB150, it would damage her in a Republican primary. Moser spent $236,000 to Campbell’s $33,000, a 7-1 margin. Moser barely hung onto her seat by 84 votes. The two incumbents who opposed SB150 outspent their opponents 7-1 and received a clear message from the voters.
Takeaway: Social issues are important to GOP primary voters.

Moderate vs Conservative GOP PACs: Several outside PAC’s engaged in legislative races. The largest of the GOP-identified PAC’s, Commonwealth Conservative Coalition, was conservative in name only. The group received money from Churchill Downs ($200,000) and Better Schools Kentucky, the political arm of the Jefferson County Public Teachers Association  ($200,000). Altogether, the group spent over $1,000,000 to defeat six conservative House members and defend three left-leaning House members.

Commonwealth Conservative Coalition was led by former Jefferson County GOP Chair Don Parkinson. Another moderate GOP PAC called Common Sense Kentucky PAC was led by former Republican Party of Kentucky Communication Director Tres Watson. They raised nearly $400,000 to defeat principled conservative legislators.
Takeaway: Truly Conservative PACs aren’t funded by left-leaning sources and must align with conservative candidates.

Smaller Conservative PACs Prevailed: Conservative PACs were much more successful on Tuesday. Conservatives for the Commonwealth, a socially conservative group, was successful in 7 of 8 races. They spent around $70,000 alongside pro-school choice group Commonwealth Educational Opportunities, who spent $55,000. Americans’ for Prosperity won 2 of 3 legislative races they engaged, also spending over $150,000 largely on door-knocking campaigns.
Takeaway: Dollars allocated to true conservative causes in primaries have greater return on investment.

Additional observations:
House District 2 conservative incumbent Richard Heath lost in a close race to Kim Holloway. Some attribute the outcome to a Liberty candidate insurgence, but no Liberty PACs engaged the race. Other issues were at play, primarily, Heath running two statewide races and being criticized as losing touch with key constituencies in his district. His family was also involved with a controversial lawsuit with a local business. Holloway won by 161 votes.

House District 10 outspoken conservative incumbent Josh Calloway defeated pro-abortion candidate Julie Cantrell by a 79-21% margin. Cantrell was publicly involved with “Republicans for Beshear” efforts to defeat former Republican candidate for governor Daniel Cameron.

House District 19 State House Rep. Michael Meredith handily won reelection by a 76%-24% margin. Some say this indicates that the liberty movement is limited. However, challenger Kelcey Rock’s baggage of a previous DUI and lapsed child support payment emerged, which sunk any chances of an upset. Meredith outspent Rock $280,000 to $50,000.

House District 50 State House Rep. conservative incumbent Candy Massaroni beat moderate challenger, Andy Stone, by a margin of 64 to 36%. She was outspent $209,000 to $81,000.

House District 69 State House Rep. conservative incumbent Steve Doan handily beat Diane Brown, by a 76-24% margin. He was outspent $90,000 to $79,000

House District 91 State House, Rep. conservative incumbent Bill Wesley beat challenger Darrell Billings for the second election in a row by a 53 to 47% margin. Billings was endorsed by Congressman James Comer and Andy Barr. Wesley was outspent $146,000 to $36,000.

Senate 7 Candidate Aaron Reed emerged from a 3 way primary. He was endorsed by Kentucky Right to Life over the mainstream favorite Ed Gallrein who was supported by the Senate Republican Caucus Campaign Committee. Incumbent Senator Adrienne Southworth, who ran essentially in an entirely different district than when first elected, lost with only 22% of the vote. Southworth previously led a statewide “election integrity” campaign that questioned the validity of Kentucky elections.

Senate 11 Conservative State Rep. Steve Rawlings handily defeated moderate candidate Duane Froelicher for an open Senate seat by a margin of 77% to 23%. Rawlings, a committed social conservative, garnered the most votes of any statewide senate candidate.

This year’s primary election was encouraging for conservative candidates who stood on principle and communicated in the right way. It was a lesson to the limits of money and influential organizations that sway to the left.  Some of the above candidates will serve next session as they do not have a challenger in the November general.